The Humanities Files

At a time when STEM fields seem to reign supreme, majoring in a non- “practical” discipline can get a bum rap. But these five alumni, who’ve gone on to careers ranging from medicine to marketing, say their humanities grounding was crucial to who they are today.

At a time when STEM fields seem to reign supreme, majoring in a non- “practical” discipline can get a bum rap. But these five alumni, who’ve gone on to careers ranging from medicine to marketing, say their humanities grounding was crucial to who they are today.

By Mary Zajac

“What are you going to do with that?” What humanities major, be it in art history or philosophy, hasn’t been asked that question? With the rising national emphasis on STEM and vocational education, it’s also a question that resonates on a campus like Johns Hopkins, where humanities and social sciences departments are as rigorous and well-regarded as those in the sciences. We decided to track down several alumni who majored or minored in the humanities as undergraduates to see how their course of study has shaped their lives and careers. And so we present to you: The Humanities Files.


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The Doctor

Peter Sadow ’94, MD, PhD
Then: Biology major; Near Eastern studies minor
Now: Assistant professor in pathology, Massachusetts General Hospital; assistant professor of pathology, Harvard Medical School

In 1990, Peter Sadow signed up for Professor Betsy Bryan’s class Pyramids, Temples, and Tombs because, he recalls, as a would-be biomedical engineering major, he needed an elective in the humanities and thought that the class would be “fun and easy.” Turns out he was half right. “I absolutely enjoyed it,” Sadow reflects. “I loved it, but it wasn’t easy.”

Sadow knew he wanted to go to medical school, but he was hooked on archaeology. So he changed his major to biology and squeezed in Near Eastern studies courses whenever he could. One semester, he persuaded friends to sign up for a course in Egyptian hieroglyphics so there would be enough students for the class to be held. He even convinced Bryan to take him on one of her Egyptian digs when he was still an undergraduate, a privilege usually reserved for graduate students (he was the first undergraduate to go abroad with her). Since then, Sadow has traveled with Bryan and her team several times, returning to Egypt during his last year of medical school and again after he was on faculty at Harvard Medical School. He has also visited the Homewood campus to teach guest lectures on the pharaoh Akhenaten and the possible medical conditions from which he might have suffered.

Sadow’s fascination with Egyptology may have started as a lark, but it was the theoretical aspect of the field that drew him in, and the critical thinking he learned then continues to influence the work he does today. As a pathologist, Sadow says, “I’m an answer-finder… I diagnose people’s cancer every day. I figure out the puzzle.” Work in archaeology and other humanities subjects is often more theoretical than research in science and medicine, and frequently derives from a limited amount of historical evidence. But the practice of asking questions and deducing answers within these parameters trains a researcher to think more broadly and creatively, he says. Humanities research, by its very nature, introduces a human component and a broader worldview.

“Studying the humanities gives you that perspective that you don’t get from figuring out how a cell works or understanding tumor biology,” says Sadow. “Those things are very nonperson-specific. But how [physicians] treat patients in the medical field is extremely person-specific.”

As a physician, he adds, “having a perspective on the world that is not entirely driven by the study of biology is immensely valuable—not only to personal satisfaction, but it’s a benefit to the people around you, whatever you have to add to the community.”


The Communications Specialist

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Lionel Foster ’02
Then: Writing Seminars major
Now: Communications manager, Urban Institute, Metropolitan Housing and Communities Center

“I have always loved words,” admits Lionel Foster, sitting in his sunny Washington, D.C., office. “I couldn’t have explained it this way as a kid, but I realize now that it felt like each word had a different taste in my mouth … an actual physical, tactile experience.”

Complementing Foster’s early, innate affinity for language was the equally strong conviction that he wanted to become a writer—not a popular choice, he says, for a poor black kid raised in an underserved neighborhood in East Baltimore. But Foster saw his education as a chance to explore the world and his place in it, and an opportunity to learn to write from masters of the craft. “Humanities and identity—I needed to explore all that,” he recalls. “And for me, that meant studying a discipline that was broader and that might help me comprehend a broader range of questions.”

It was Writing Seminars instructor Stephen Dixon who demystified writing, says Foster, by breaking a piece down into its basic components, something that allowed Foster to better understand and shape his own writing. Dixon also taught him about style and technique. “But I think so much of what I got out of education were certain habits of mind,” explains Foster. “There are some specific technical skills you have to walk away with [after college], but being welcomed into and made part of a culture of inquiry and learning and investigation and systemic curiosity was just as important,” he says.

After graduating from Hopkins, through the auspices of a Marshall Scholarship, Foster earned master’s degrees in social policy and planning and urban planning from the London School of Economics and a master’s in creative and life writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. He went on to write opinion columns for Baltimore City Paper and The Baltimore Sun and hold jobs with the Baltimore City Department of Planning and Urbanite magazine, before joining the Urban Institute. Today, as a communications manager, he is the self-described “bridge” between the institute’s research on urban housing and policy and a national audience.

“I find that communication skills are coveted by many different employers,” observes Foster. “It’s a skill to be able to observe, categorize, and then explain anything.”

He also notes: “My perception is that folks with humanities backgrounds have tended to be more flexible in their thinking, more broad-minded, curious about a number of things, more versatile thinkers, and sooner able to draw connections that others might see as disparate.”


The Entrepreneur

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Leslie Farnsworth ’96
Then: Humanistic studies major
Now: Founder and CEO, FrogDog

An “entrepreneur” is how Leslie Farnsworth describes herself on her eponymous blog. Farnsworth is the founder/CEO of FrogDog, a national branding and marketing strategy consulting firm. She also owns Twin Flame Properties, a commercial property and management development company. It’s not at all the career she had planned.

Farnsworth, a Houston native, saw her future in academia, as a scholar, teacher, and writer. But after completing her BA in humanistic studies and a subsequent master’s degree at the University of Chicago, Farnsworth decided to step away from the scholarly life. She worked briefly in publishing, then did some freelance consulting and found, somewhat to her surprise, that she loved the practical application of her scholarly work in intellectual history to marketing. “Intellectual history is the history of ideas… where do ideas come from and how do they change over time,” explains Farnsworth. “I found that so fascinating; [and later] I could see how you could apply those principles to the real world.”

The interdisciplinary nature of her undergraduate work and the realization of the interconnectivity of various disciplines—history, social sciences, literature, religion, the natural sciences—Farnsworth says, made her a better thinker and communicator. “I feel very passionate that with a liberal arts education, you are really pushed to explore and to see how things connect and to think critically, analyze multiple sources, and synthesize all of those things,” she says.

Farnsworth makes a practice of hiring liberal arts majors for their ability to think and analyze. “As a business owner/employer, I can teach someone technical skills,” she explains. “But I’d much rather hire somebody who knows how to assess, who has an intellectual worldview, and who is able to come to something with an analytical approach.

“I don’t think there’s anything more practical than a liberal arts education for an undergraduate. Specialize in graduate school or take a job where you can specialize on the job and learn technical skills,” she advises. “But there’s nothing more practical than learning how to think.”


The Editor

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Christopher Bonanos ’90
Then: History of science major
Now: Editor, New York Magazine; author, Instant: The Story of Polaroid

Chris Bonanos’ cubicle at New York Magazine could double as a museum of technological relics. A Garrard turntable and vintage rotary fan compete for shelf space (the Royal manual typewriter sits atop a file cabinet). His Polaroid Land camera hangs from a strap within arm’s reach. When he speaks, Bonanos gestures with a pencil pulled from several held in a mug on his desk. Surrounded by vintage technology, the longtime journalist admits he still has a lot in common with the history of science major he was 25 years ago. “I always had geeky interests,” he says.

Bonanos began Hopkins as an engineering major but switched to history of science after taking Professor Stuart “Bill” Leslie’s Texts in Stone and Steel, a class that focused on art, technology, and architecture. He also wrote for the Johns Hopkins News-Letter.

After 22 years at New York Magazine, first as a copy editor and now as a senior editor, Bonanos has some advice for prospective writers: Don’t go to journalism school. Specific reporting skills can be learned on the job, Bonanos argues, but not the breadth of knowledge in history or literature that makes for skilled interviewers and writers. “Writers need to understand references, make connections,” he says. “A humanities education gives you a well of references you can draw from… to know who Ezra Pound was or Teddy Roosevelt.

“And you’ll never get another chance to go back and study those things.”

Bonanos suggests that there is a growing need for writers who can translate complex scientific ideas for a popular audience, and his own work reflects the range of understanding and natural curiosity necessary to be successful in such a competitive and fast-changing field. He has written about Lockheed Martin’s plans for a new small-scale nuclear power plant; profiled Molasses, a 55-year-old Eastern box turtle; and spent two weeks on the phone talking to experts about a new breed of cockroach that’s recently taken up residency in New York—”It was wonderful,” he says of those conversations. His first book, Instant: The Story of Polaroid, was published in 2012. He’s at work on his second, about Weegee, the New York City street photographer.

Bonanos points to the opportunity to gain limited expertise in a diversity of topics as one of the joys of his work. “Magazine writing is the best,” he says, because you get to be a “temporary academic.”


The Marketing Executive

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Don Kurz ’77
Then: Social and behavioral sciences major
Now: Omelet, Chairman and CEO

Don Kurz is the first to admit that when he entered Johns Hopkins he was “an immature 18-year-old who happened to be a good lacrosse player.” In the 35-plus years since then, however, Kurz has established himself as an expert and leader in strategy, marketing, and finance. In 2011, he became chairman and CEO of Omelet, a Los Angeles-based marketing and creative company that works with clients including AT&T, Microsoft, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as a slew of media-based companies like HBO, Bravo, Sony, and Cinemax. Kurz and his company recently took on a project to help raise awareness about the work of A Better Los Angeles, a nonprofit founded by Pete Carroll, head coach of the Seattle Seahawks. Kurz, in addition to being an ABLA board member, served as executive producer for License to Operate (2015), a documentary about former gang members working to curb violence in Los Angeles’ most distressed neighborhoods. The film was produced by Omelet Studio, the original content division of Omelet.

Although Kurz majored in social and behavioral sciences at Hopkins, taking mostly classes in economics and psychology with a dose of business, he also studied French and Hebrew (Kurz was fascinated with the Middle East and, having been bar mitzvahed, thought it might be good to have a better understanding of the language). He is adamant about taking classes across the disciplines. “The goal and the best thing of value in a liberal arts education is that it instills curiosity, the desire to learn, and how to learn,” says Kurz.

“In an era of efficiency, I can’t say I closed this big deal because I knew Hebrew,” he continues. “But I can tell you that whatever career success I’ve had, it’s because of the ability to relate and understand people, have empathy for them, have context for decisions, and I really attribute that to the classes in the humanities and the social sciences I took at Hopkins.”

When he makes new hires, Kurz looks for people who are well-rounded and intellectually curious—and more than just technically savvy.

“There’s absolutely no reason on earth that many students shouldn’t be focused on humanities as undergraduates, because they’ll never get that chance again to get a broad base of understanding and become a better citizen,” advises Kurz. “I got the specific business skills getting an MBA—how to read a balance sheet, how the capital markets work—and all that stuff is important. But it’s not the key to success. It certainly wasn’t for me.”

By Mary Zajac

We want to expand our Humanities Files online. Tell us how your humanities studies at Hopkins made a difference in your life. Email humanities@jhu.edu

We want to expand our Humanities Files online. Tell us how your humanities studies at Hopkins made a difference in your life. Email humanities@jhu.edu